When the Amber Alert System Fails: An Abduction on Navajo Land

AP Photo/Mary Hudetz, File

On May 2, 2016, a man in a van abducted a brother and sister on the Navajo reservation. The boy, Ian Mike, escaped. The abductor murdered Ian’s sister — Ashlynne Mike — and left her body by the sacred mountain Tsé Bitʼaʼí, known as Shiprock. Her death left the Navajo Nation with many questions: If police had issued an Amber Alert sooner, would Ashlynne have lived? And why did it take eight hours to send that crucial first alert? For Esquire, Rachel Monroe traveled to the Navajo reservation to find out how underfunding, disenfranchisement, jurisdiction, and confusion about procedure undermined the police safety network, and how the Navajo Nation are trying to fix it while protecting their values and sovereignty.

While sexual assaults on tribal lands are notoriously difficult to investigate and prosecute, child abductions come with their own set of challenges. The various bureaucracies of individual states muddy the issue even further. Almost everywhere in the U.S., potential Amber Alerts are vetted and issued by state authorities, which keeps your phone from being flooded with mistaken or incorrect alerts. This is further complicated on reservations, as under-resourced tribal police officers search for the missing while simultaneously coordinating with state police to issue an alert—sometimes across multiple state lines.

Then, of course, there’s the legacy of mistrust between people living on tribal land and law enforcement, one that stretches back centuries, and is still deeply visceral. (Native Americans are more likely to be killed at higher rates by police, per capita, than any other group, including African-Americans.) “We talk about generational trauma,” Walters told me. “It’s absolutely the reality.”

In tribal areas, Mariano noted at the meeting, the abduction-prevention strategies that law enforcement rely on—things like training exercises and information sessions—can backfire. Traditional taboos are still strong among some elders. “They don’t wish [abductions] to happen, which is why they don’t want you to have these [training] exercises,” he said. He’d worked in law enforcement for a long time, but sometimes he felt caught between his role as a cop and what he’d learned from his grandmother: that openly talking about issues like child abuse and kidnapping invites those evils into your community.

Three weeks after I left Taos, Walters called to tell me the news from Shiprock. I was too shocked to respond at first. We’d talked about abductions, and then an abduction had happened. “It’s hitting Mariano hard,” Walters said, “because of what he said in the meeting.” It felt like a horrifying manifestation of the problems we’d discussed in Taos—as if we’d been talking about the red van before we even knew it existed.

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